Benjamin Franklin (a book review)

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I admit to loving dry old history books that most of my contemporaries would wrinkle their noses at and loudly proclaim, “It’s BORING!!!”  But I don’t think the fact that I really really loved this book automatically means that you will detest it.  So bear with me and let me tell you about a book about a historically important and thoroughly fascinating man.

Edmund Morgan is a scholar who believes in using primary source material, and Franklin, as a printer, writer, statesman, scientist, and very sociable letter-writing man left a vast wealth of primary source materials behind to help us understand what was in his mind as he performed some of the most essential services ever given to a country as the United States was being formed.

The book makes us very aware that if history had followed Franklin’s every desire for specific outcomes, we would still be part of the British Empire.  But Franklin was unique among the founding fathers.  He did not serve his own ambitions the way John Adams did.  He did not serve strictly ideological goals like Thomas Jefferson often did.  But his input and pragmatism were essential to helping those two men  create the Declaration of Independence.

He believed in public service as a higher goal.  He carried out not his own will, but the will of the people evident in the debates about where the country needed to go when the government of the British King and Parliament became increasingly unresponsive to the needs and issues of the American colonies.

This was akin to the way he approached science.  He was able to discover enough scientific facts through careful and clever experiments to create practical and life-saving inventions like the Franklin stove and lightning rods.  He led the field for a time in the investigation and understanding of electricity, and the old story of flying a kite in a thunderstorm is not a myth.  It was an actual experiment using what Franklin had discovered about electrical conductivity and insulation to prove that lightning was made up of electrical energy.  Edison and Tesla might never have started if Franklin had not come first.  He never defended, argued, or explained his scientific theories.  He believed in letting experimental evidence speak for itself.  Basically, he became a world-famous scientist by not seeking fame.

Franklin loved to be with people of all kinds, especially intelligent people and female people.  He was a good friend to many, and even maintained respectful friendships with some who chose to be on the other side of the American independence question.  His work on the Pennsylvania constitution, being ambassador to France, and his part in the peace treaty negotiations with England made him as essential to the American experiment as any of the founding fathers who would later take a turn at being president.

All I can really say about this excellent book is that it helps you get to know the man who was Ben Franklin.  And this is a man that most people are bound to love, and every man should know.

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Filed under book review, humor, philosophy

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